Finnish-born PhD student Wilhelmiina Toivo, from the University of Glasgow School of Psychology, has won the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) 2016 -17 writing competition Making Sense of Society, in partnership with SAGE Publishing.
Brought up in Helsinki, Finland, Wilhelmiina came to Glasgow in 2011 to study psychology as an undergraduate student; last year she completed a Master of Science in Psychology and is currently six months into her PhD.
The competition, which is now in its second year, celebrates and fosters the writing skills of the next generation of social scientists. This year students were asked to write 800 words about why their research matters, and how it helps us make sense of and understand the society in which we live. There were nearly 300 entries which demonstrated the incredible breadth and depth of social science research taking place across the UK. Topics ranged from Big Data, to climate change, class, immigration, dementia, the economy and education. You can find all the winning entries here: Making Sense of Society
Entrants were encouraged to temporarily take off their academic hat, and write in a style different to what they might be used to, using their imagination to think of new ways to capture the interest of the public. A wise requirement, as academic writing, frankly, is incredibly tedious to read and it appears designed to exclude all but the chosen few. And no doubt it contributes a great deal to the failure to transfer knowledge from research into practice.
In her winning essay Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual, Wilhelmiina Toivo wrote about her experiences growing up in Scotland speaking English as a second language, and how speaking in her non-native tongue gave her a sense of liberation when it came to swearing and discussing her emotions. This personal insight linked well to her PhD research project, which focuses on why many bilinguals report feeling less emotionally connected to their second language, a phenomenon known as the ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’.
Below is the essay written by Wilhelmiina Toivo that made her joint winner with Lauren White, from the University of Sheffield. Wilhelmiina’s research caught my attention because I can relate on some level. With English as my second language, I find that the emotional force of swearwords and taboo (S-T) words is much stronger in my native language, so I switch to that when I really need to unload! It also helps that people around me can’t understand me then 🙂 And that is despite the fact that my entire life now unfolds in English and I think (and probably dream) in English. I also find it much easier to discuss some subjects in English, they don’t carry the same emotional weight as they do when I try to discuss them in my native language.
To take a short tangent now, it turns out even if you learn a second language to a very high standard, you’ll never speak it like a native unless you were exposed to it by around the age of eight. This is mirrored by brain scans. Languages you learn after eight go into a subtly different area of the brain to those acquired earlier.
Due to the complex nature, and often diverse subject matter, the value of social science research is too often overlooked or called into question, despite its significant impact on society. It turns out using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign language. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native language, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language. Two additional experiments showed that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. The hypothesis is that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native language does.
Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual, by Wilhelmiina Toivo
My dad had a rather liberal philosophy of bringing up children, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge number of people who live in multilingual settings.
Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us
Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.
It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?
To investigate these questions, my project uses eye-tracker technology to measure bilinguals’ pupil responses to emotional words in English. Typically, when shown highly emotional words or pictures, people’s pupils dilate as an uncontrollable, emotional reaction. Previous research has shown the effect is smaller in bilinguals’ second language, which suggests reduced emotional resonance. Understanding the reasons why this happens can, in turn, help us explain how you experience a foreign language community, and how this could be taken into account in acculturation and adaptation.
Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This is particularly true for your second language. For fluent bilinguals living in a community where their native language is not
spoken, reduced emotional resonance sets ‘the limits of the world’. While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context.
Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language
However, not all the implications of reduced emotional resonance are negative – bilinguals can actually benefit from being able to approach things in a less emotionally involved way. For example, bilinguals have been shown to be able to make more rational decisions in their second language. Also, switching languages can be used as a tool in therapy when working through emotionally difficult or traumatising experiences. Imagine how it would be if it were easier to talk about your emotions with your partner – maybe bilingual couples have a communicative advantage? Ultimately, understanding the full scale of implications of reduced emotional resonance is a way to understand how bilinguals experience the world.
In the increasingly globalising world where studying abroad, immigration and sojourning are more and more common, as well as pervasive issues in international politics, understanding the realities of bi- and multilingual people is crucial. Being bilingual no longer means just being exposed to two languages from birth – it can refer to a person who uses two languages in their everyday life, regardless of their level of fluency. As the number of people with versatile language backgrounds grows, understanding all aspects of language and how these mediate our lives become important. Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human.